Authors: Charlie Higson
Tags: #Fiction - Young Adult
He rattled the chain through the hoop. Louis seemed to smile now, as if he was grateful for being set free. Surely Paul had imagined it. Sickos didn't have real thoughts, didn't have real emotions. They were dumb beasts.
He crouched in front of Simon and fumbled at the buckles on his muzzle. Simon had powerful jaws and strong teeth.
“If you try and bite me, you dirty old bastard, I will kick all your teeth out,” Paul said. “You get me? Huh? One false move and you're a dead sick duck.”
He unchained Simon and let the chains clatter to the floor. The sicko sniffed the air like he always did, tasting Paul's scent, but seemed to have no interest in attacking him. Paul hoped they weren't all too weak and feeble. It was important to him that his threeâSimon, Louis, and Cherylâmade a big impact. Important that the other kids saw exactly what dirty secrets were being kept chained up here, hidden away in the heart of their precious museum. The kids who called themselves Scientists had made these sickos what they were, and now they were going to reap their harvest.
Finally, he kicked Cheryl into life and shuffled backward, not taking his eyes off the three sickos, keeping his flashlight shining in their faces. They hated bright light and shrank away from it. People called them zombies, but to Paul they were more like vampiresâready to suck his blood if he let them. He climbed down off the back of the truck, and once he was safely on the ground outside, he retreated to a safe distance and called to them softly.
“Come on, you ugly freaks, you turds, you sick twisted bastards, get off thereâ¦.”
Louis was the first to appear, sticking his head out and tilting his worm-eaten nose in the air, snuffling, shivering. Then he plopped down onto the tarmac and waited for the others. Simon came next, trembling on shaky legs. He stuck his tongue out and appeared to lick the night, thick saliva dribbling down his front. Finally, Cheryl came slithering out, always the feeblest, unable to stand, moving her body from side to side like a snake. She wriggled over the edge of the tailgate and hit the deck with a wet slap.
“Idiot,” said Paul. He knew, though, that sickos were tough inside. It took a lot to hurt them.
Cheryl paused for a moment as a shudder passed through her skinny flesh; then she was up and moving off, half crouching, half crawling, chimp-like, the other two lolloping at her side.
“It's party time,” said Paul, sniggering. His head ached something awful and he was shivering as badly as the excited sickos. His fever was getting worse. Well, it was nothing. Tonight he had let loose the plague and sent it into the museum.
Let's see how the others like it.
“Here come the gate-crashersâ¦.”
There was a collection of miserable faces around the library table. All except one: James was grinning his face off. Having the time of his life. Behaving like the most annoying little kid, constantly interrupting, asking questions, and mocking the others. They'd given up arguing with him. It was clear he wasn't going to budge and the angrier they became with him, the more they shouted and the more he enjoyed it. The bigger the reaction, the happier he was.
Chris had been trying to read out a passage from one of his favorite booksâ
, a fantasy novel set in a huge rambling castle called Gormenghast. He had brought a copy of the book to the museum with him. There were loads of books in the museum's two libraries, but they were all science books. There was everything you could ever want to know about fossils, insects, evolution, geology, volcanoes, dinosaurs, plants, birds, bones, meteorites, crystalsâ¦but there weren't exactly a lot of stories. So whenever scavenger parties went out to look for food or supplies, they also had instructions from Chris to bring back any books they found. Storybooks, novels, fiction.
Over the past year Chris had slowly but steadily been removing those science books that looked the least interesting from the library shelves and replacing them with novels. The kids were very prone to boredom in the museum. There was no TV, no DVD player, no computers or Internet or Xbox. So Chris's books were very popularâwhich was partly why Chris had been so angry and upset that so few kids had bothered to turn up for his special event.
Fantasy novels were the most in demand. Since their own world had gone to hell, the kids liked to lose themselves in other worlds and other realities.
James was obviously not a fantasy fan, however. He had butted in every few seconds while Chris had been reading.
“Why has everybody got such stupid names?” he'd sneered. “Prunesquallor? Steerpike? Sepulchrave? What kind of a name is Sepulchrave? Why can't they have normal names like Mike, or Steve, or Dave? Dave's a good name.
would be a much better name for the book than
. And they could call the castle Brian.”
So Chris had abandoned
. Now he was trying to find a book that James might approve of.
“Okay,” he said, picking one from the pile. “What about this? My favorite living author. Wellâ¦at least he was before the disease.”
“What's his name?” asked James. “Nerdy Nerdman?”
“No. Anthony Nash.”
“Anthony Nash?” said one of Chris's assistants, a serious-looking girl called Lettis. “I love Anthony Nash! He wrote this really amazing spy series about a boy who gets a computer implanted in his brain.”
“Yeah,” said Jibber-Jabber. “And he wrote the Demon Spawn series as well. I loved that. About a boy in a foster home who finds out that his father was a demon and his mother was an angel, so he's half demon and he has to fight his dark side to stop it from taking over, and he has these superpowersâ”
“If you don't mind me saying,” said James, “it sounds a little far-fetched.”
“It's a brilliant series,” said Jibber-Jabber. “It's really gory and lots of characters get killed!”
“Anthony Nash is a really good writer,” said Chris Marker. “His books sold millions.”
“So what?” said James. “Get me a proper book. Find one about diseases that might be helpful.”
“Please shut up,” said Thomas. It was the first time he'd spoken since James had asked him who he was dressed up as.
“Oh, the geek can speak, can he?” said James. “Freak of the week.”
“You think you're so macho, don't you?” said Thomas, his voice shaky, as if he might start crying at any moment. “You call us geeks, but what are you? A science nerd. That's all. You're hardly Conan the Barbarian, are you?”
“At least I'm not Conan the Librarian.”
“Ha-ha. Old joke.”
“I do things, Thomas,” said James. “I help.”
“You're a bully,” said Thomas.
“Yeah, and you're a tit.”
Thomas jumped up out of his chair and stood over James, shaking with rage.
“Sit down, tit-end,” said James. “You're blocking my light.”
“Why don't you just shut up and go away?” said Thomas.
James suggested Thomas do something to himself that was not only physically impossible, but also quite disgusting.
This broke Thomas. Unable to hold back any longer, he threw himself at James, fists pummeling his back. This was exactly what the bigger boy had been waiting for. He stood up, grabbed Thomas around the neck, and wrestled him to the floor. In a moment he'd flipped him onto his front and was rubbing his face into the dirty carpet.
And all this time, James was laughing. “Look at you, you worm, you wriggling little bookworm, trying to get back underground.”
“Leave him alone!” said Hattie. “Get off him!”
“He started it.”
Now Jibber-Jabber joined in. He went to kick James, but James saw him coming, grabbed his ankle, and twisted it, sending Jibber-Jabber sprawling into a chair before crashing to the floor.
James was just going to make a lunge for Jibber-Jabber's tender parts and cause him some real pain when there was a knock at the door.
Thinking it might be someone who could help, Hattie ran over and opened it. James looked up, his view partly obscured by a jumble of chairs.
“Good costume,” he said. “Ten out of teâ”
But there was something wrong. He realized that the others were standing staring, transfixed by the new arrival, and Hattie was backing away from the door.
It slowly dawned on James that the figure in the doorway wasn't a kid dressed up.
It was an adult sicko. And he smelled appalling.
James swore and scrambled to his feet in an awkward flurry of arms and legs.
Now it struck him that he recognized the sicko. It was the one they called Simon Foul. Somehow he'd got off the truck. And somehow he'd lost his muzzle.
“That's Simon Foul. How'd he get in here?” he said, his voice suddenly high and cracked, catching in his throat.
“How are we supposed to know?” said Jibber-Jabber. “You're the sicko expert; we're just geeks, remember?”
Thomas had got up off the carpet and was standing in the middle of the room, paralyzed, like a hedgehog in the middle of a highway. If James had hurt him at all, he'd forgotten all about it. His attention was entirely focused on the evil-smelling sicko who was shuffling in through the door.
“I don't like it,” said Alice. “Make it go away.”
Chris turned to James.
“Don't look at me,” said James. “I'm not going anywhere near it.”
“We have to get it out of here,” said Chris. He was staying calm.
“He's not alone,” warned Hattie, who had a different view of the doorway than the others. “There's more of them.”
“Oh, Jesus,” muttered James, moving around behind the big table. “It's all three of them.”
Simon moved fully into the room, revealing Louis and Cheryl behind him.
James was shaking so hard it hurt. The humorous names he'd given to the three sickos didn't seem quite so funny now.
As Louis and Simon moved ahead, Cheryl followed, supporting herself on the doorframe. Her head was moving rhythmically from side to side as she scanned the room with yellow eyes. Something rumbled up from the depths of her stomach and she let out a long watery belch, followed by a dribble of brown liquid from between her lips. Then she sucked in a lungful of air and staggered toward Hattie, who backed away with a little shriek.
“Do something,” said her sister, Alice. “Make them go away. I don't like it.”
Everyone turned to look at James.
“What do we do?” asked Wiki. “Come on, James, what do we do?”
“I don't know. Fight them, or something.”
Simon and Louis were advancing on Chris and the others, who were bottled up at the end of the library. Hattie was by herself at the opposite end, with Cheryl creeping toward her. James, Thomas, and Alice were behind the table by the windows that overlooked the parking lot. James glanced out, looking for some clues in the darkness.
“How'd they get out?” he said. “It shouldn't have happened.”
“Up the spiral stairs,” said Chris, ignoring James, and one by one his group clattered up to the gallery, Chris staying till last, making sure they were safe.
“Remember book three of Demon Spawn, where Luke and Lilith are trapped in the occult library under attack from Valac and Scox?” he called up to them.
“Yes,” said Jibber-Jabber. “What about it?”
“They cause the magic books to fly at the demons, remember?”
“But that was magicâit's a story,” said Wiki, looking down in panic at the advancing sickos. “Sorry to remind everyone, but we don't have any special powersâwhat are we going to do?”
“I know we can't make them fly, but we can throw them! Look for the biggest, heaviest books you can find,” Chris shouted, hurrying up the stairs three steps at a time, his wizard robes flapping at his heels. Louis and Simon were still a good three meters from the staircase. If the kids could stop them from getting up to their level, they'd be safe. But it wasn't going to be so easy for James and the others. The two sickos were blocking their route to the stairs. And Hattie was still trapped down the other end by Cheryl.
James looked around desperately for any kind of weapon. But other than books, there was nothing in the library.
Then there was a
as the first heavy volume dropped from the walkway. It missed its target but got the two fathers' attention. They both looked up, hungry and angry and confused.
Suddenly, three more books dropped, and one of them struck Louis on the shoulder. He gasped and shook his head, ropes of drool flying from his mouth.
“Keep them coming!” Chris barked. “Hold them off.”
The sickos were momentarily distracted. This might be James's only chance. He saw the door was still open. If he could only get to itâ¦
Another book hit Louis, who snarled with rage.
James ducked under the table, scuttled to the other side, rolled across the carpet, and with the other kids' voices ringing out behind him, stumbled onto his feet and shot out through the door.